WASHINGTON — A group opposed to the North Korean regime of Kim Jong Un is now at odds with the Trump administration and fighting extradition of one member from the United States over charges related to a raid on North Korea's embassy in Madrid.
Supporters of the group, Free Joseon (Free Korea), argue the storming of the North Korean embassy in Madrid on Feb. 22 was designed to rattle the Pyongyang leadership and that the defendants should be treated as political opponents of the regime, not as suspected criminals to be handed over to Spanish authorities.
But the Department of Justice is so far honoring Spain's extradition request for Christopher Philip Ahn, an American citizen and retired U.S. Marine, with prosecutors citing the provisions of the extradition treaty between the two governments. U.S. marshals also earlier this month searched the apartment of Adrian Hong, the alleged leader of the raid, who has campaigned for human rights in North Korea. Supporters worry that anyone extradited to Spain could then be transferred to North Korean custody, since nothing in the extradition treaty between the U.S. and Spain would prevent it.
"Suppressing dissidents who fight for the liberation of innocent North Koreans only sends the message to Pyongyang that its unsurpassed crimes against humanity lie beyond the concern of the United States," said Sung-Yoon Lee, a professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
The U.S. response was "the wrong decision" and the Trump administration should have denied the extradition request, on grounds that the infiltration of the embassy was a political act in unusual circumstances, Lee said.
Free Joseon portrays itself as a government in exile and refers to the North Korean regime as an "immoral and illegitimate regime." The resistance group has claimed responsibility for the raid on the North Korean embassy, but denies it beat or gagged embassy staff as alleged by Spanish authorities.
U.S. and Spanish courts routinely approve extradition requests, a former Justice Department official told NBC News. But the 1970 extradition treaty between Spain and the U.S. allows for an exception to extraditions if a case involves "an offense of a political character."
As the case unfolds in federal courts, defense attorneys will likely try to convince judges that the infiltration of the North Korean embassy last month amounts to a political action.
A defense lawyer for Hong accused the Trump administration of essentially cooperating with Kim Jong Un's regime and endangering the lives of the activists by acting on the extradition request from Spain.
That extradition request appears to be based on a criminal complaint from North Korea, Hong's attorney, Lee Wolosky, said.
Let our news meet your inbox. The news and stories that matters, delivered weekday mornings.
"It's completely unprecedented to extradite U.S. nationals in response to North Korean criminal complaints," Wolosky said.
The Justice Department declined to respond to the defense attorney's comments on whether the case represented a break with customary U.S. practice.
North Korea has called the raid a "grave terrorist attack" and demanded an investigation.
Ahn, who allegedly took part in the raid, is being held in a federal facility in Los Angeles pending the extradition process. Spain is seeking his extradition on six criminal charges, which carry a potential prison sentence of more than 10 years.
Ahn, who was arrested April 18, appeared in federal court on Tuesday in Los Angeles where Judge Jean Rosenbluth denied bond, the latest setback for the 38-year-old American and his associates.
According to sympathizers of the accused, the Free Joseon members had always viewed the U.S. as an ally and potential partner in their quest to undermine the North Korean regime and assist defectors. But they appear to have miscalculated Washington's response to their operation in Madrid.
Following the raid, Hong handed over computers, thumb drives and other material seized from the North Korean embassy to the FBI after flying to the U.S. via Portugal, according to U.S. court documents and Spanish authorities. During his meeting with the FBI on Feb. 27 in New York, Hong told authorities that he and others "carried out the raid on the North Korean embassy in Spain days before," according to federal court documents unsealed Tuesday.
But whatever the intelligence value of the material shared with U.S. authorities from the North Korean embassy, the Justice Department has chosen to act on Spain's extradition request.
"Clearly, the U.S. government doesn't want to be associated with this group," according to one former U.S. intelligence officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "We don't know why."
Wolosky also said there was a potential risk that Spain could transfer Ahn or others charged in the case to the custody of North Korea, as the extradition treaty between the U.S. and Spain did not preclude such a scenario.
As for the possibility of Spain transferring the accused to North Korea, a Justice Department official, who was not authorized to speak on the record, said that the extradition treaty between Washington and Madrid meant that anyone extradited to Spain for alleged crimes committed in Spain "will be afforded all due process and other rights typically available to all defendants facing criminal charges in Spain."
According to the unsealed U.S. court documents, Spanish authorities allege Hong and a 10-member gang entered the North Korean embassy on a false pretext, armed with knives, iron bars, machetes and imitation handguns. They then allegedly beat and threatened some of the embassy staff, placed hoods over their heads and tied their hands behind their backs, according to U.S. court documents.
While the group occupied the embassy for several hours, one woman from the embassy escaped through a window and alerted neighbors, who called the police, according to the Spanish authorities. When Spanish police arrived at the entrance, Hong allegedly greeted them wearing a jacket with a Kim Jong Un lapel badge and told them all was well. Some members of the group later fled in embassy diplomatic vehicles.
Wolosky, Hong's defense attorney, said the account of events at the Madrid embassy offered by the Spanish government and North Korean embassy staff was inaccurate.
"What happened in the embassy in Madrid is quite different from what is reflected in the North Korean criminal complaints to the Spanish authorities," he said. "They were invited into the embassy and in due course we will demonstrate that."
Lee of Tufts University also questioned the credibility of statements given to Spanish police by North Korean embassy staff members, who he said have strong incentives to provide accounts that will safeguard their positions in the eyes of the authoritarian regime in Pyongyang.
Wolosky said Hong has devoted his life to helping people get out of North Korea. "He and the other accused are human rights advocates and not criminals," the lawyer said.
More than a decade ago, the Yale-educated Hong helped found a nonprofit group, Liberty in North Korea, dedicated to assisting defectors from North Korea. He was reportedly detained in China briefly trying to aid a group of North Korean defectors.
Free Joseon first gained attention for bringing to safety the son of Kim Jong Nam, the assassinated half-brother of the North Korean leader. The estranged sibling was killed with a nerve agent in Malaysia in 2017 and U.S. officials believe Kim Jong Un's regime was behind it.
After Hong's role in the embassy incident was publicly revealed by Spanish authorities, he "is living in fear for his life," Wolosky said. "We do know the North Koreans have targeted him, And the U.S. government knows this. And he has taken steps necessary to protect himself against that threat."
Dan De Luce
Dan De Luce is a reporter for the NBC News Investigative Unit.
Andrew Blankstein is an investigative reporter for NBC News. He covers the Western United States, specializing in crime, courts and homeland security.